The Ritual and the Habitual: Infertility and Marking Time

Air Lingus

Photo by Keiko Zoll

Every time I fly, I quietly say the Sh’ma and V’ahavta to myself every time the plane takes off. Every time. Without fail, no matter how tired I might be if it’s an early flight. I am convinced that if I do not recite these two Hebrew prayers, I will die in a fiery death.

I am convinced that it is my words alone – and not the skill of the pilot, the laws of physics, or the majesty of modern flight – that keeps us airborne.

. . .

For Passover, I’m a stickler about finishing seder. Yes, I rush through the Grace After Meals (read: don’t do it). But it’s really important to me that after the dinner and dessert portion of the evening, we sit back down and make it to that third and fourth sip/cup of wine. That we all say “Next year in Jerusalem!” together before we call it a night.

Sure, we might glaze over the two instances where we ritually wash our hands during seder, but for me, it’s important that the overall structure of the Passover seder ritual is observed.

It got me thinking…

What is ritual? What is routine? What is habit? What is superstition?

And what does this all have to do with infertility?

. . .

You could call my pre-flight prayers habit. It’s just what I do when I fly. Many of you (myself included) might call it a superstition. If I don’t do this, something bad will happen.

But it’s also part of my travel by flight routine: go through security like a boss (that’s right, shoes in hand, laptop and liquids out ready to GO), grab a bite to eat, board, buckle up, pray. And in many ways, I’ve ritualized my flying experience because I’ve sanctified the occasion (however selfishly).

It’s a blurry line between habit, ritual, routine and superstition. But here are the subtle differences:

A routine is something you do all the time. A habit is a something you do all the time that’s really hard to give up. A ritual is typically a routine with a specific order, religious or spiritual in nature. A superstition is a somewhat irrational belief that if you do or don’t do a specific act at a certain moment, supernatural forces will cause something bad to happen.

See how they all blend together, depending on how you look at things?

And we have habits, rituals, routines and superstitions for everything.

Including infertility.

. . .

One of the things I love about Judaism, and ultimately, why I chose it (although some might argue it chose me), is the sanctification of time. We make time holy. And to do that, we mark it with ritual.

For thousands of years, we’ve retold the story of Exodus through a ritual meal at Passover. Every Friday night, we light candles to mark Shabbos. When a child reaches eight days, they are named. When they turn 13, they enter into spiritual adulthood through a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It always comes back to marking and sanctifying that time.

When I found out I was infertile, the first thing I did was made sure I was at temple the first Saturday morning after I found out. While it was an unpleasant experience that launched a brief crisis of faith, it was my gut instinct. For me, I had to mark this moment in my life – however dire – through ritual observance.

I attending a beautiful workshop, “Infertility, Matriarchs and Ritual,” last spring at Mayyim Hayyim, progressive mikveh in Newton, MA. We dug down deep into what it ritual means and what it means to create ritual for yourself. While Judaism has lots of prescribed rituals and blessings for just about every aspect of life, it’s interesting to note there are no formal rituals or blessings for anything related to pregnancy or much less, infertility.

In a lot of ways, I feel like that ritual silence around pregnancy and even Jewish superstition (Jews traditionally do not have baby showers nor are they supposed to set up nurseries in advance of birth) understand the precariousness and fragility of this time in a woman’s life. Judaism understands that miscarriage, pregnancy loss and stillbirths happen.

That said, with all of the many milestones and turning points in your infertility journeys, it makes sense to mark your moments with ritual. Or habit. Or routine. Or superstition.

Take for example, this heartbreaking piece I heard on NPR last year. A grieving father describes the loss of what would have been their third child, an early pregnancy loss for this wife:

A miscarriage is tragic enough by itself. What makes it worse is the fact that no social custom has evolved to help us through the loss. There is no ceremony, no coming together, no ritualized support. Annmarie and I suffered alone, in silence.

Desperate to find some way to mark this moment in their lives, he comes up with a plan:

So this weekend, after the kids are in bed, Annmarie and I will do something that may seem a little crazy. We will head into the garden with a bulb we’ve been saving. We will bury it, say a few words, and hold each other. We will finally have our ceremony.

(You can listen to the full story here.)

So let’s say you want to mark time for yourself. How do you go about that? Well, it helps to think about all of the things that go into a ritual: sights, sounds, smells, environment, etc. Here are some points to consider as you begin to craft your own infertility rituals.

Crafting Your Infertility Ritual


Image via Stockvault

  • What moment in time are you marking? Does it only occur just once or is it recurring?
  • Is your ritual something you can do spontaneously or must you set aside time to complete it?
  • Is this a ritual that you perform by yourself? Or do you need help or participation from others?
  • How much time does your ritual take? Five minutes? An hour? Three hours? It’s up to you.
  • Where does your ritual take place? Is it indoors? Is it outdoors?
  • What is the mood of this environment: should it be quiet? Should it be daylight or evening? Should it be private or open?
  • What instruments do you need? Will there be visual references, such as light, photographs, books? Will there be music? Is it music you create or something that is played?
  • What words will you invoke? Are they spoken aloud or are read silently? Are they words you have prepared or will you draw them from other sources?
  • How will you mark the end of your ritual?

I hope you find these questions useful and if you’re looking to brainstorm an infertility ritual for yourself, test it out in the comments. See how it feels. I’m happy to offer my feedback and thoughts, too!

What are your infertility rituals, routines, habits and superstitions? Sound off in the comments!

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  1. Meredith says

    I hadn’t thought of it as a ritual, but I suppose it became one. At the time, it was more of a symbol of hope when we were so full of doubt. After each visit to the fertility clinic for another procedure, we would stop by the baby store on the way home to choose something small and sweet in anticipation of a successful treatment.

  2. says

    I love this post, Keiko. You are so right about the lack of ritual surrounding pregnancy loss and infertility. Though it makes me wonder … what were the rituals like in more matriarchal societies? I bet there were some … how could one find out? Ritual is so important, I think, for us to come to terms with/cope with the difficult parts of life, as well as celebrating the things that make us happy.

  3. says

    this is a gorgeous post, keiko.

    when I lost my son at 5mo pg, 6 yrs ago, I craved some form of ritual to help observe his passing. like infertility, it was such a silent, invisible aching anguish that no one shared. I got a few cards and flowers, but all concern by others faded after a few weeks at most, while I was still lost in grief. ultimately I crafted a ritual for my husband and me, involving fire (candles) and water and words and life (planting). we didn’t have his ashes so we burned an ultrasound image and buried it in the pot of a lemon tree (which never fruited, go figure). we shared tears and darkness and light before we could return to life as it had changed for us. that ritual was SO important for me. time had stopped for me alone. life went on for everyone else. ritual was the only way I knew how to stop time for a few sacred moments and say, to the world if only in my own home: he was here, he was loved, he mattered.

    thanks for this lovely reminder.

  4. says

    I had never thought about the differences among routines, habits and rituals. I did find that having a ritual to mark infertility loss helped me move through the grief. If I’d had this post back then, your guide for crafting, I think it would have been even more gratifying.

    Love that pic, too!

  5. says

    Love this, Keiko. I think that ritual, outsisde of a religious context, is so often forgotten or perhaps called something else, like habit, but it’s so important, like you said, to mark time or mark an occasion, good or bad. Definitely somethinig to keep in mind.

  6. says

    I haven’t really thought about ritual surrounding infertility much because I’ve thought the main place where it would enter into my life is once we’re actually trying treatments. My mom gave me a set of fertility candles, but by the time she got them to me, we were on a break and then found out we couldn’t try naturally anymore (DH and I are both carriers of spinal muscular atrophy, so we need IVF with PGD). But I think I might craft a ritual involving the candles for when we finally can cycle.

    Looking forward to meeting you on Tuesday/Wednesday!!